UT might be better without Durant

Longhorns not slowed by loss of national player of the year

Texas's D.J. Augustin (14) wraps a pass around Oklahoma State's Marcus Dove in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals.

Texas Longhorns

Stat Stuffer: G D.J. Augustin (19.8 ppg, 5.7 apg, 2.9 rpg, 1.3 spg).

Why they could win it: Texas presents more matchup problems than anyone in the nation. 6-foot-7 Damion James is an inside-outsie threat who averages a double-double, 6-foot-10 Connor Atchley leads the team in three-point shooting and blocked shots, then guards A.J. Abrams and D.J. Augustin play the role of closers late in the game, each shooting just under 80 percent at the line.

What could cost them: The depth in the backcourt really isn’t there. Behind the trio of Augustin, Abrams and Justin Mason, there’s … well … you get the point.

Most impressive six-game: Nov. 23-Dec. 8: New Mexico St., 102-87; Tennessee, 97-78; Texas Southern, 98-61; @ UCLA, 63-61; North Texas, 88-72; @ Rice, 80-54 (Part of an 11-game winning streak to start the season).

Lose the National Player of the Year one year, return to the NCAA Tournament the following spring more ready for the postseason?

Believe it, because that’s the case for Texas.

Kevin Durant, who blitzed through the college ranks in a whirlwind season which saw him average 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, is nothing more than a one-and-done memory.

But the guys who hung around at times a year ago and simply watched the current Seattle Sonics standout in amazement have certainly grown up. It shows in many more ways than an improved regular-season record (22-8 in 2006-07, 25-6 in ’07-08) and a share of the Big 12 regular-season title.

“This year, no question, they’re more balanced,” said Chip Brown, who covers the Longhorns for the Dallas Morning News. “Durant disappeared at times either by his fault or (Texas coach) Rick Barnes’ fault. Barnes clearly wasn’t going to feature the kid because he felt like his team stood around and watched Durant enough as it was. If he ran every play for the kid, he’d have four kids just kinda limping along.”

While Durant’s progressed as the year has gone along in the NBA, his former Texas teammates grew too.

Junior A.J. Abrams and D.J. Augustin developed midrange games, sophomore Damion James is back at small forward (his natural position), brandishing his inside-outside skills, and in junior Connor Atchley, the Longhorns have a 6-foot-10 commodity who leads the team in three-point percentage and blocked shots – an odd combo for sure.

But as far as a run to San Antonio goes, Augustin holds the key.

“They’re 25-1 (in the regular season) when they have a lead in the final four minutes, and that’s mostly because of Augustin,” Brown said. “He’s the best closer in college basketball. You can’t get the ball out of his hands, he makes free throws, he gets fouled, he gets his teammates easy shots.

“They are battle-tested. They do not have the depth, so this is a classic seven-man rotation because they kind of plug in a bunch of big guys, but they have no depth at guard. And that’s a problem. If D.J. Augustin gets into foul trouble, like he did against Michigan State, they were never really in that game. He picked up two quick fouls and they really couldn’t live without him. When he went out, Michigan State went on a tear.”

Mention of the losses to the Badgers and Spartans brings up the most valuable chip in Texas’ stack entering the season’s most pressure-packed month – they’ve seen it all.

Texas is battle-tested, yes, but without too much depth, several pieces have to align for the Longhorns to make a six-game run through the bracket.